When Aroostook County celebrated the 150th anniversary of its incorporation in 1989, historians collected 1980s memorabilia in a potato barrel time capsule to be opened March 16, 2014, on The County’s 175th anniversary, and again in 2039 for its bicentennial.
They might not have predicted that in 2014 The County would be surviving without Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, which closed in 1994. Biathlon was an unknown sport to residents who were to become hosts for World Cup championship ski races.
Yet, as U.S. Sen. Susan Collins noted at The County’s 175th anniversary celebration March 16 at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, while the lives of Aroostook County people have changed significantly, certain qualities endure.
“Optimism, strength, determination, hard work and character” evident in 1989 remain today, Collins said, observing that “Aroostook County is the largest county east of the Mississippi River, yet we are all neighbors.”
Aroostook County historical societies and other organizations filled the first floor of the UMPI library with displays honoring The County’s history, and County-themed refreshments included potato skins, broccoli bites and Acadian ployes.
The library conference room overflowed with celebrants who came for an afternoon of activities emceed by John Martin of Eagle Lake, former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and a member of the Friends of the Aroostook County Historical Center.
Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. traced the history of Aroostook County in a slide presentation prior to a ceremonial opening of the potato barrel time capsule led by Sen. Collins and Bradley Troy Wilson, 25, who was born on March 16, 1989 and honored at the time for sharing a birthday with The County.
A miniature potato basket and a VHS video tape of the 150th anniversary celebration were among the first items lifted from the barrel. One by one, items deposited in the barrel during the sesquicentennial were removed and arranged for display.
In addition to a variety of publications and artifacts from the 1980s, the barrel contained a list of 10 predictions by the late James H. Orser of Mars Hill. “Looking forward to 2014,” Orser wrote, “we will have had, or will have, a woman president, also a black president; schools will be open year-round with different sessions, a four-lane highway will be all the way to Fort Kent and Presque Isle will be a city of 60,000 people consisting of all surrounding small towns. Ditto Caribou.”
The founder of and active participant in the Mars Hill recreation program, Orser also anticipated that “Mars Hill Mt. will have year-round recreation, including skiing the slopes, cross-country trails, snow-sled trails, ATV trails, a golf course and motels with swimming pools. Tee fees for the golf course will be $50 a day, a $10 tip for a meal will be a commonplace practice and The County will have basketball tournaments and state play-offs for all sports.”
Orser envisioned farming would be expanded to include broccoli, peas, carrots, turnips, cauliflower and many other vegetables with export to Europe “an every-day occurrence.” He also foresaw hunting and fishing mostly through clubs, private lands with fees for using them and the raising of deer, moose and fish for market.
When the barrel’s contents had been examined, they were redeposited with additional materials representing The County in 2014, including newspapers, magazines, books by local authors and official messages from members of the Maine Legislature and Maine’s congressional delegation.
Friends of the Aroostook County Historical Center, which co-hosted the event with UMPI, was formed in the 1980s when then head librarian Jere Green created the Special Collections Room containing all the library’s material on Aroostook County. Under the leadership of Special Collections Librarians Anna Mcgrath and Nancy Roe, the Friends group supported new acquisitions for the room and organized the 1989 County sesquicentennial celebration.
This year, the Friends mobilized a committee to plan the 175th anniversary celebration working with the university’s community and media relations office, Library Director JoAnne Wallingford and Special Collections Manager Nancy Fletcher. Planners had been associated with the publication of the book “ The County: Land of Promise, a pictorial history of Aroostook County,” edited by Mcgrath and published for the 150th anniversary. The few remaining copies of the book were available for sale March 16 at a price adjusted for inflation — up from $29.95 to $60.
Rachel Rice, UMPI director of community and media relations, estimated that 175 people attended: “which is perfectly fitting considering the anniversary year. It was just a wonderful event. We can’t wait to do it again in 25 years.”
Prior to concluding the festivities with a ceremonial sealing of the potato barrel by County Commissioner Norman Fournier, those attending were asked to imagine what life might be like when the time capsule is reopened in 2039.
Participants envisioned guests for the 200th anniversary celebration arriving in electric cars, with electricity stations having replaced gas stations. They predicted earpieces will be the only phones and energy will come from wind and sun instead of coal, wood and oil.
“We will see a 10-story building,” said one. And from a 3-year-old: “Superheroes are going to be real.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.